Written by: Katie Hawkins-Gaar
In 2018, John Bebow, president and CEO of the Center for Michigan and Bridge Michigan, set an ambitious goal. He wanted to create a membership program for Bridge that would earn $1 million in reader revenue.
At the time, Bridge Michigan—a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focused on the state’s people, politics, and economy—didn’t have a membership program or strategy. But that would soon change.
By January 2019, Bridge Michigan joined the News Revenue Hub and Amber DeLind, formerly the engagement strategy director at the Center for Michigan, joined Bridge as its membership director. By the end of 2021, Bridge Michigan exceeded $900,000 from nearly 9,000 members.
They’re on track to hit that $1 million goal later this year.
It all starts with asking
Part of building a successful membership program means asking for money—over and over. That was particularly hard for DeLind and her colleagues to do.
“We are painfully and unavoidably Midwestern,” she said, laughing. “It’s very difficult for us to ask for money. We’re uncomfortable with it.”
The Hub kicked off their work together with a reader survey that helped them understand how many Bridge readers were willing to donate.
“We understand that it’s uncomfortable to ask for money,” Hub CEO and co-founder Mary Walter-Brown explained. “That’s why, first and foremost, we use an audience survey to convince newsrooms how bought in their current audience already is. We use data to encourage them to ask for money more often.”
“Over time, they get pretty good at it,” Walter-Brown added.
Today, Bridge Michigan runs six fundraising campaigns a year. They include buttons to donate throughout their website and send out monthly timely topical emails to readers that highlight the standout work they produce. And they track all of their membership progress and goals through spreadsheets.
“We follow an always-be-fundraising sort of philosophy at Bridge,” DeLind said, adding they are constantly trying different fundraising strategies.
The News Revenue Hub encourages newsrooms to do at least one crowdfunding campaign each year around a specific reporting effort that the audience is interested in. Last year, thanks to a Hub-administered audience survey, Bridge learned that readers wanted more political coverage. So they hired a politics reporter and centered their summer crowdfunding campaign around the new hire.
Walter-Brown says experimenting with fundraising tactics is a smart approach.
“We’ve found that after six years of doing this kind of fundraising nonstop that there are different personality types of consumers,” she explained. Some readers are motivated to become members because of a newsroom’s mission or journalism’s larger impact on democracy. Others are motivated by helping newsrooms achieve a tangible goal, like hiring a reporter or expanding into a new geographic area.
“It’s important for newsrooms to sprinkle different campaigns and different campaign messaging throughout the year to make sure that they are appealing to all these different subsets of news consumers,” Walter-Brown continued. “Bridge does a great job of that.”
Operating on all cylinders
Once Bridge CEO John Bebow decided to create a membership program from scratch, he didn’t look back. He met Walter-Brown at a conference in 2018 and shared his goal of reaching 10,000 members and $1 million in reader revenue.
Walter-Brown said at that moment she knew Bridge was exactly the kind of client the Hub wanted to work with.
“Having that buy-in from the top—with that kind of vision and enthusiasm—has proven to be one of the most critical elements of a successful membership program,” Walter-Brown said. “John had such certainty and commitment to his goal that I think it was contagious for his team.”
Walter-Brown said she often sees that building membership programs is a “back-burner project” for newsrooms. That wasn’t the case for Bridge. For them, it was a “number one priority.”
With the Hub’s guidance, Bebow’s enthusiasm, DeLind’s expertise, and the help of other smart hires, the Bridge team was poised for success. “What’s really unique about the Bridge team is that they trusted us from day one to guide them in the right direction,” Walter-Brown said. “They believed in our proven best practices, prioritized those efforts, and stayed focused on them.”
Like many newsrooms, Bridge uses the funnel method when considering how to convert readers to paying members. DeLind works at the bottom of that funnel—inspiring frequent and loyal readers to become paying supporters. Her colleague Bill Emkow, Bridge’s growth strategist, is poised at the top of the funnel—bringing new readers in through SEO, social media, and other tactics.
“Our membership work doesn’t work the way that it’s designed to without having different people working on different things,” DeLind said. “It’s a team effort.”
“Bridge very quickly understood that each stage of the funnel has its own strategy assigned to it,” Walter-Brown said. “There needs to be someone in a role at each stage of the funnel who has the power and influence to execute that strategy.”
With just 19 employees, the Bridge Michigan staff is relatively small. And with clear direction from the top, everyone knows how important membership is. DeLind especially appreciates that she and her coworkers “are not only allowed, but are expected to participate in editorial planning meetings.”
Sitting in on editorial meetings allows DeLind and her colleague Josiah Foster to have a better sense of what content to plan for. In return, they offer story tips and questions from readers. “Josiah and I monitor the contact form on our website,” DeLind explained. “So we can be a liaison for what our readers are thinking and asking about.”
With Emkow, DeLind, and Foster in place at different ends of the funnel, the Bridge team turned their efforts to the middle of the funnel—creating more newsletters, data-tracking tools, and other unique offerings for audience members. In spring 2020, they created a statewide COVID tracker. Earlier this year, they hosted two audience engagement events related to Michigan redistricting—a topic that was driving traffic and reader questions. They also sent out an email asking readers to support a lawsuit Bridge filed with other newsrooms demanding transparency in the redistricting process.
Taking advantage of these newsworthy moments has brought in new readers to Bridge and motivated existing readers to become members. Last year, they reached 577,027 average monthly unique visitors, more than double their number of unique visitors in 2019. Likewise, their number of members increased from 3,594 in 2019 to 8,318 in 2021.
“I call it the ‘operating on all cylinders’ premise,” Walter-Brown said. “If you are poised and ready to take advantage of every opportunity that you have, then you can raise a million dollars in membership. That’s what they’ve proven.”
Making members feel valued
A big part of DeLind’s job is inspiring readers to become members and moving them up the loyalty ladder: converting one-time donors to recurring donors, and, over time, increasing the amount of donations from their most loyal supporters. But she’s also responsible for stewarding existing members by making sure they feel appreciated, and likely to continue their membership. Currently, 48% of Bridge members are recurring donors.
Some of the perks offered to Bridge supporters include receiving swag, access to members-only events, and special benefits at events open to all readers—for example, getting free electronic copies of each book chosen for Bridge’s bi-monthly book club.
“We spend a lot of time trying to convince someone why they might like to make a donation to our newsroom. So I don’t want to do that twice,” DeLind said. “I feel like it’s easier to retain someone once you’ve made that case and they agree that this is worth their time and energy.”
“It’s critical that our members know how much we appreciate their support,” DeLind added. In addition to offering members-only perks, DeLind and her colleagues work hard to make sure that Bridge supporters feel like they’re part of the newsroom.
“Again, it’s part of that operating-on-all-cylinders approach,” Walter-Brown said. “Bridge is willing to put in the hard work that it takes to steward and cultivate their readers and make them feel invested in the organization.”
In December 2021, Bridge launched a pilot membership program for mid- and major-level donors—readers who donate between $1,000-$4,999 and more than $5,000, respectively. The program, called Power Circle, offers members virtual coffee hours with Bebow and other members of the Bridge team; reserved seating at all in-person Bridge events; and recognition on the Bridge website. They currently have 48 mid- and major-level donors.
“I think Bridge is really uniquely positioned now that they’ve had a membership program for several years to be able to go one step further and look at how they are going to move those mid-level members into the major donor category,” Walter-Brown said.
A million-dollar milestone
DeLind has a spreadsheet to track the percentage of Bridge’s revenue every quarter, year over year. If the pace holds, she said, this will be the year that Bridge hits their million-dollar goal.
“I’m astounded,” Walter-Brown said. “For a small- to medium-sized digital news organization, a million dollars is a lot of money. I’m so happy to prove that this can be a reality.”
“It’s beyond anything we really could have imagined when we launched,” DeLind shared.
Walter-Brown said that she’s especially excited to see a smaller newsroom hit such an ambitious goal. “They’ve done it with a small team,” she said. “They’ve done it with a ton of hard work, grit, and focus.”
DeLind doesn’t yet know what the Bridge staff will do to celebrate when they hit this milestone. Perhaps a pizza party? She’s superstitious about making plans just yet.
Whatever they decide to do, Walter-Brown hopes they do celebrate in a meaningful way. “I mean, it’s an amazing accomplishment for a small newsroom,” she said. “They should be celebrated internally. And they should be celebrated around the industry, for proving what’s possible.”